Aid Ukraine – Our Journey
It wasn’t until I started to write this down that I realised how emotional this has been for me and everyone connected, and how significant our donation would prove to be both physically and mentally for the Ukrainians.
As the Russians invaded, I was fixated, angry and felt completely useless.
I work in logistics and was aware that I had both the resources and connections to make a difference, so I decided to stop watching and to start doing something about it.
I was confident that others would feel the same and reached out the business community of Central London and Stratford, where my offices are located and to the community of Havering-Atte-Bower where I live.
Newham Chamber of Commerce, Stratford Rotary Club, Isles of Scilly Rotary Club, community of Havering-Atte-Bower, Stratford Chobham Farm residents and the community and congregation of Church E20, Mod revivalists and supporters of West Ham and Funky Country Line Dancers, all helped and in literally just a few weeks, I had a huge amount of physical donations, from mobility items, food, children’s clothing, medication, sanitary items, children’s toys, medical aids, power tools, you name it, we received it.
I also had a huge amount of help from the customers, suppliers, staff, and drivers of my business at Urgent Services.
Fortunately, I was able to store these items at our Stratford office, which is waiting for a fit out, and is where the Rev Saffron Ryan and her congregation of Church E20 and local girl guides, all helped to pack and label the items, thus saving time for the volunteers in Ukraine.
In addition to the physical donations, I started a Just Giving page to raise funds to buy generators for houses with no power. The fund reached over £6,500, which I topped up so that the fund could power 20 homes!
My original plan was to buy these generators in the UK and drive them across Europe with the rest of the donations. But that makes little sense as the weight of these alone takes up almost all the capacity in the van, and as the UK fittings would also need an adaptor, I decided to source them in Poland and deliver after my first drop to the border. However, this was much harder than I thought as I cannot read or write Polish. But I will tell you a little more about this later as there is a lovely twist of fate.
Our first shipment of aid was 1.2 tonnes of sugar donated by Tate & Lyle, and 7.2 tonnes of Saline from the NHS and all 14 pallets were all shipped by Urgent Services free of charge to a warehouse in Kent, before being transported to Ukraine on lorries packed with aid from all over the UK.
As we approached our leaving day of 29th April, I was going through my due diligence with regards to where the physical donations would be going in Poland and became a little concerned. Basically, not everyone can be trusted and as so many people had put their trust in me, I wanted to make sure that our aid got through to the people who really needed it, as opposed to sitting in a warehouse somewhere in Poland or ending up in a boot sale.
Stratford Rotary club put me in touch with the Rotary Club in Kyiv, who in turn put me in touch with Ukrainian humanitarian workers operating in Kyiv, Lviv and Kharkiv, which itself has seen some of the worst devastation. I was now completely confident that our aid would get to the right people.
My life-long friend, Todd Stevens, who moved to the Isles of Scilly from the East End some years ago, offered to be my co-driver and we set off for the Ukraine border on Friday 29 April at 18:30.
Twitter updates @urgentdelivery were being done by Ilias Ayoub, who is the Newham Chamber of Commerce photographer and who took photos for free of charge.
We reached France at around 01:00 and as I was still full of adrenalin, I decided to just keep driving. We were 2 hours from the Polish border by mid-day Saturday, and after a 6-hour sleep, we carried on driving and ended up 2 hours from the Ukraine border by the early hours of Sunday morning.
Once awake, we made our way to the border with Ukraine. Our contact in Kyiv asked me several times if I would be willing to cross the border and drive the aid to Lviv, whilst at the same time my wife and children were getting me to confirm that I would only drop at the border. I was keeping an open mind.
The reason they wanted us to cross is because only women can come out of Ukraine to receive the aid, and because the queues to get out and back in can be as long as 8 hours each way, so it is very hard for them.
I asked Todd what he thought, and he said he would go with whatever I thought.
We started queuing at around 13:00 and got to the Polish border checks at about 18:00. At this stage I was still foot shuffling as to whether to cross or not. There were soldiers with guns everywhere on both the Polish and Ukrainian side. We went through Polish security and at that point I decided to text my wife and tell her that I was going to do the drop to Lviv and to just trust me.
Unfortunately, when you are at the border and beyond, the phone networks don’t work very well, and she didn’t get that message until 01:00 the following day when I was already back in Poland. She and my children were not happy as they could see from my satellite tracking that I had crossed the border and was entering Lviv, but were unable to communicate with me, which just made the situation more stressful.
Part of my thought process was that the Russians had not bombed Lviv for two weeks and I was confident they were now concentrating their campaign in Eastern Ukraine.
Therefore, at the time of crossing I was less worried about bombs and Russians, but seriously concerned that the vehicle we were driving and us as people were completely uninsured due to us travelling in a War zone, and if we were to break down or have an accident, there would be no chance of spare parts or recovery.
I was also concerned about the possibility of hijacking. Again, you must keep in mind that this is a War zone, people are struggling, and La La land doesn’t exist. It’s real and you take nothing for granted!
Lviv is just 1 hour drive from the border, it would take us an hour to locate where we were going and to deliver, and then another hour back to the border, so I had already sold it to myself that we would have to be pretty unlucky for something to go wrong in that time, and given that we had been specifically asked to cross the border by the very people we came to help, to not help would have meant going against the principles of what I had set out to achieve in the first place. Besides, these people must live this reality every day, whereas for myself and Todd, this was just 1 day out of our lives before we get to come home, so we agreed between us to push on.
Of course, we now know that the Russians bombed 3 power stations in Lviv 48 hours after we left.
The first thing you notice when crossing into Ukraine is how it differs from Poland. Poland is like a new country, everything pristine, well organised, great roads, lovely clean buildings. Whereas Ukraine is very much like how the old East Germany used to look. A bit grey and dilapidated, and then there are the images that let you know you are in a War zone.
As we drove from the border to Lviv, we passed many fully armed check points as soldiers with guns checked and double-checked vehicles. But what really captivates you is how the people are trying to live a normal life at the same time.
There was a woman sitting at a bus stop with her shopping waiting for a bus, next to a fully armed barricade with soldiers, and then just a cross the road there were children playing in a park. That pretty much sums up the country. People with a huge amount of resilience trying to live a normal life, yet ready at any time to react. This image made me contemplate how lucky we are!
We were having trouble finding the address as the sat nav was playing up, but one of the Ukrainians came to meet us to guide us to their storage unit. He walked slowly in front of the van beckoning us to follow, weaving through dilapidated ruins, huge mounds of rubble and pot holed streets, before stopping next to a huge building with missing windows. I have no idea why the building was like that or why there was so much rubble, and I didn’t feel it appropriate to ask.
As we turned a corner, we were met by a group of maybe 15 locals aged 18 to 60 who had all come to help unload. Two of them had driven from Kyiv specifically to meet us, and to take the mobility items back with them to a military hospital Kharkiv.
The meeting was emotional with lots of hugging and a feeling of happiness and gratitude towards us for crossing the border, and to the people of the UK for their support. They could not demonstrate their gratitude enough!
We were there for about 45 minutes and invited for coffee or something stronger. They had even organised for us to stay over as they were concerned for us getting back. Basically, I had not factored into our timescales that Ukraine has a curfew at 23:00 and that Ukraine is 2 hours in front of the UK, whereas Poland is only 1 hour.
But to be completely honest, I was scared to push my luck any further given the circumstances, especially with a £40k van parked overnight and uninsured, and it would also not have been fair on my wife and children, who were already upset that I was going to Poland, let alone Lviv.
We thanked them for their hospitality and agreed to keep in touch. I also confirmed that the generators would come later in the week and that I would deliver them to their warehouse on the Polish border.
As we left Lviv I felt bad that we were going back to a nice normal life and for them it was going to be another day of stress. But at the same time, I was happy that we had achieved what we had set out to achieve and that our aid was with the people who needed it most.
On the route back there was a queue or lorries waiting to get out of Ukraine. This queue was something like 20 miles long and there was not much room for the parked lorries, my van, or the oncoming traffic, some of which was a huge convoy of lorries delivering aid, as well as agricultural and military machinery.
It was now dusk almost dark, and the check points were fully populated with soldiers. We approached a fork in the road where I was blinded by oncoming traffic and misread the faint road markings. We ended up on the wrong side of the road with a motorbike directly in front of us. Fortunately, I managed to avoid a collision and out of the whole trip, that is the one situation that gives me recurring thoughts of what if?
We had to queue to get back into Poland for many hours and the checks were very thorough as they were looking contraband and people trying to escape.
The border force in Poland were even more thorough and checked the contents of every bag on every vehicle and every compartment that would open.
We were eventually cleared to enter Poland at around 0130 and were elated. What a fantastic feeling that was!
I called my wife, who called me lots of names, and didn’t speak to me for two days. But all is now fine.
The following day I started to look up generators on the internet, but as I can’t speak or read Polish, I was getting nowhere.
We were staying at hotel where the receptionist spoke better English then me. I complimented her and she told me that she and her husband had just moved back to Poland from Surrey, and that he used to run a branch of Selco, and now that they have moved back, he is doing the same in Poland. (Light bulb moment!)
I asked her if I could speak to him on the phone about the generators, so she called him and the great news is that he sourced the generators, I paid for them with your donations, and he is getting them delivered this week.
Todd flew back from Frankfurt to the Isles of Scilly, whilst I continued the final return leg of the journey on my own.
As I came through the customs at Dover I was heavily questioned and needed to show my vehicle documents and the manifest of the items I had delivered. Just like in Poland, they went through every inch of the vehicle falling short of unscrewing body parts, which they were doing to the van next to me.
Eventually I was good to go, so I drove to hammersmith to pick up my wife from her night out as I had missed her so very much!!!
This was an experience I will never forget, and as well as the new friends I now have in Ukraine, I met some wonderful neighbours in Havering-Atte-Bower and Stratford, who I doubt I would have met had I not done this.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who helped me, and to say that together, as a community, we really did do something good for the people of Ukraine and the fact that our aid was delivered direct to Lviv on Sunday 1st May, and then into Kharkiv by Thursday 5th May, is a fantastic achievement we can all be proud of.
This is the aid we delivered to Lviv being unloaded
This is the aid we delivered to Lviv, being unloaded at a military hospital in Kharkiv for wounded soldiers
This final 2 pictures of our trip is of me with Katy, and also with her son and husband Wojciech. Katy was the receptionist at Villa Astra Hotel who put me in touch with her husband Wojciech Glasner, who works for a company called Castorama and who arranged for me to purchase 20 generators to power homes without electricity at a discounted rate, and delivered to the Ukraine border where they were then transported in the Ukraine.
I ordered the generators on 11th May and they were delivered to Lviv on 13 June, and the time it took to deliver the generators, is the reason I chose to deliver to Ukraine in person. It just takes too long when people are in need now!
We have also delivered 7.5t of Saline solution donated from the NHS, and 1.2t of sugar, donated by Tate & Lyle and this recently arranged transportation of 2 suitcases full of medical equipment direct to Lviv.
I am continuing to provide on-going logistics advice and support to various UK agencies and organisations looking to transport aid for Ukraine.
What a great way to conclude this campaign!
Well done everyone!!!!!